Dear Fr Christopher,
In cases of imminent death of a Christian is a priest who has not been
granted the authority to hear confessions allowed to hear their
confession and read the prayer of absolution?
Thanks a lot.
Answer to Question 57.
Strictly speaking, if a Priest has not received the blessing to hear
confessions then he cannot hear someone’s confession even if that person
is on his death bed. Ideally a Christian should live a sacramental life
with regular confession and participation in the Holy Mysteries thus he
will be ready to pass over to eternity at whatever moment the Lord
decides to take him. More than most this is not always the case and many
people do not prepare for the hour of death until it is too late.
If a Priest who has not the blessing to hear confessions is called to a
dying person he should give him Holy Communion, but not hear his
confession until he has exhausted all the options available. If for
example the person is in a large town then there are other priests who
he can be called to hear the confession. If the person is in a village
then again a neighbouring priest can be summoned. Of course these
examples can work in Orthodox countries like Greece and Cyprus where
there are many priests available.
But then you will ask: “What if there is no time to call another
Priest?” From experience, people rarely drop dead in an instance. Many
times the family and doctors believe that the person is ready to go, but
the person hangs on for many more hours on even days. No one can predict
the exact time for when a person is to die.
Then there is the question: “what if the person is in a remote area with
no other priest available for miles?” Indeed there are such places
especially in Non-Orthodox countries like Africa where Orthodox Priests
are scarce and distances from one parish Church to the next can be
hundreds of miles. In such places the Priest should be a father
confessor and if he isn’t then the weight and responsibility falls
directly with the Bishop under whose jurisdiction the parish belongs.
Priests are not allowed to do as they wish: they perform the Sacraments
on behalf of the Bishop who is the ultimate authority.
If after exhausting every possibility and there is no way of reaching
another Priest then the non-father confessor Priest has two other
options. Firstly he can hear the confession without giving absolution.
This is a practice that is done even on Mount Athos where a monk has as
his spiritual father an enlightened monk, but will then go to a father
confessor for the prayer of absolution. This was the practice of Blessed
Father Sophrony with Saint Silouan who was just a tonsured monk and not
a Priest. After hearing the confession the Priest can say the general
prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Shepherd and Lamb, who
takest away the sin of the world...” which in the service books is
assigned to be said before the confession, but which many Priests say as
a general prayer of confession for the congregation before Holy
Communion. The Prayer mentions the forgiveness of sins and can be
considered as a form of absolution.
Secondly the Priest can hear the confession and give absolution in the
usual way, but at the first opportunity he should inform his Bishop of
what he has done and why. The Bishop will then tell him what to do in
future or out of necessity may decide to make him a father confessor.
With love in Christ